Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"1Q84:" Love and Trope



To say that Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 was an anticipated release is the very definition of "understatement." Annually, dozens of books have a lot of true build up and excitement long before publication, but not since the last Harry Potter release has a title warranted over a year's worth of speculation and midnight release parties. As I've mentioned, I'm still behind on the majority of Murakami's bibliography, but I couldn't help but join the communal anticipation. In Japan, the novel's 2009 release became the bestselling title in the country's history. Even the slightest hints (the titular pun, the online preview of the first chapter) really didn't give much away, plot-wise. Granted, I'm sure I could have snooped online and found summaries or concrete previews, but it would have taken the fun out of actually going into the book with no notions or knowledge. I finished reading it a few days ago, and have waited to gather my thoughts rather than jumping right into a review; granted, this is my standard method for any book review, since I'm not only any real deadline. The more I think about 1Q84, the more I'm torn between my genuine appreciation and some of the book's small problems.

The novel manages to be both massive in its scope as well as relatively basic in its plot lines. The chapters alternate between two main characters. Tengo, a young Japanese math teacher and fiction writer, is secretly commissioned to re-write a novella entitled Air Chrysalis, originally dictated by a mysterious teenage girl named Fuka-Eri. The story reveals the secrets of the religious cult in which Fuka-Eri was raised, and when it becomes an instant bestseller, Tengo and his editor try to keep the ghostwriting under wraps as unwanted attention begins to pile up. The other main character is Aomame (Japanese for "green bean"), a young fitness instructor who moonlights as an assassin for a wealthy widow, carrying out hits on pedophiles and abusive husbands. Aomame is haunted by her own past in the religious cult, her one true love from childhood, and the realization that she is experiencing two separate worlds. She has moved from 1984 into 1Q84 (the "q" stands for "question mark," and is also a play on the Japanese character for the number 9). The world of 1Q84 features two moons unseen by anyone else, as well as subtle differences between the true reality and the alternate present time. After Aomame carries out her final mission, the two separate realities begin to merge, with reflections of Air Chrysalis and the side-by-side convergence of her and Tengo. Other minor yet important characters come into play: Tamaru, the intimidating gay bodyguard of the dowager; Ushikawa, a seedy, ugly private investigator for the religious cult; the cult's Leader and the fantastical creatures known as the Little People; and the passing friends and lovers of Tengo and Aomame.

Given the wealth of ideas and plots, it's remarkable how easy 1Q84 is to follow, and much like the story, its form is also a separation between the postmodern and the standard genres: romance, thriller, and science fiction. In some of the book's best passages, Murakami goes off on metaphorical tangents that sometimes give thematic hints, but mostly work as their own little vivid slices:

"Tengo was just then dreaming about crossing a long stone bridge on a river. He was going to retrieve a document that he had forgotten on the opposite shore. He was alone. The river was big and beautiful, with sandbars here and there. The river flowed gently, and willows grew on the sandbars. He could see the elegant shape of trout in the water. The willows' brilliant green leaves hung down, gently touching the water's surface. The scene could have come from a Chinese plate (Murakami 64)."

The thriller aspects, namely Aomame's assassin work and conversations with the dowager, are as blatantly satisfying as any such scenes found in an action film, and they alternate between gripping and beautifully evasive. When Aomame and the dowager discuss an "assignment," everything is left between the lines.

"'Of course a person's existence (or nonexistence) cannot be decided on the basis of mere practical considerations--for example, if he is no longer there, it will eliminate the difficulties of divorce, say, or hasten the payment of life insurance. We take such action only as a last resort, after examining all factors closely and fairly, and arriving at the conclusion that the man deserves no mercy (Murakami 219).'"

Some people may disagree with me, but I found the asides and the intentionally vague descriptions to be extremely well-written. Murakami's metaphors may not be the best examples, but he crafts them to be evocative and extremely visual. However, and most people will agree with me on this point: 1Q84's biggest problem is repetition. Various passages and ideas are constantly reflected and rephrased: Fuka-Eri speaks in a halting, direct style devoid of punctuation or inflections; Tengo is haunted by early memories of his mother standing by his crib, having her breasts suckled by a man who is not Tengo's father; Ushikawa is ugly with a misshaped head. These range in plot importance, from immediate to passing, yet Murakami repeats these descriptions constantly and steadily. After awhile, a reader wouldn't be faulted for thinking to him or herself: "Okay, I get it. Move on." In certain cases, this would be insulting to the reader, since the atmosphere would be one of a writer assuming that the reader had forgotten these elements. However, for someone as established and revered as Murakami, it seems to be a constant need to address the book's unusual atmosphere, even though the descriptions are enough to be mentioned once or twice and not revisited. I would never be one to complain about a novel being too long; however, such a massive work would have benefited from a scaling back of repeated ideas.



On the flip side, some of the passages demand further explanations and do not get them. Toward the novel's end, Fuka-Eri disappears, and aside from a long letter sent to Tengo, she's simply forgotten about. Air Chrysalis is summarized and shown to reflect the actual workings of the religious cult, but its late appearance is obvious, providing no new insights into how the story ties into reality. Tengo's memories of his mother are repeated, but never explained, except in vague connections to his affair with a married woman. Murakami gets very close to impassioned critiques of religious movements and cult mentalities, but just when he gets into what could be revealing insights, the story jumps away to another part of the plot, leaving a potentially sociological/cultural aspect virtually untouched. There is so much good to enjoy in 1Q84: the science fictional elements are seamlessly integrated and made out to be realistic in their own ways, and there is a genuine joy and excitement in figuring out how Tengo and Aomame are connected. However, the novel as a whole nearly suffers from a death by a thousand cuts. The little problems, both stylistically and thematically, bring down what is very close to being one of the best novels in recent memory.

I won't go into a long discussion of the book's sex scenes, but it is worth noting that 1Q84 has been nominated for the 2011 Bad Sex Award: The Guardian has linked the more dubious passages here. From Philip Roth to Jonathan Franzen, the literary merits and distractions of bad sexual writing have been discussed in many ways. Murakami's descriptions can be embarrassingly comical at times, but they tie into my above critique. It's not so much that they are bad, but they are repeated far too many times. Aomame has misshaped breasts; her friend Ayumi has perfect ones. Tengo's penis is described both hard and flaccid. Other writers have written worse, but when the ideas and images are constantly refreshed, the repetition calls far too much attention to already shaky passages.

While I am being pretty critical, I do want to stress that this is a work of redeeming merit. Murakami has a keen sense of blending genres and everyday situations that cross multicultural boundaries. Again, the science fiction never feels out of place, and the initial set-up draws the reader into the strange world without question or hesitation. While I'm no expert in contemporary Japanese life, Murakami is an expert at conveying societal norms and the isolation of people who want to live their own lives. The Tokyo in 1Q84 is daunting and crowded, and Tengo and Aomame are perfectly captured as the classic lost souls in an unforgiving metropolis. With this in mind, it's saddening to realize that little mistakes mar this otherwise excellent novel. There is so much left unspoken and undeclared, and it's difficult to imagine why Murakami left these holes in an otherwise meticulously plotted work. Tengo and Aomame get their happy ending, but the reader will likely be left only partly satisfied. I do recommend 1Q84, but cannot help but wonder if I've missed something. I don't think I'm being too picky with the fine details, but they are what separates it from being a classic instead of just a very fine novel.

Work Cited:
Murakami, Haruki. 1Q84. Translation copyright 2011 by Haruki Murakami.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chicago Reader: Culture Vultures



This has shaped up to be an excellent week for Instafiction. Our Twitter and Facebook pages have experienced some small measures of growth lately, and we've been extremely happy with our dedicated readers and supporters. Jeremy and I have e-mailed some press releases to a few publications and websites, hoping to get feedback, some possible acknowledged support for our endeavor, and more exposure to people looking for a good variety of short fictions. One of the releases I sent went to the esteemed Chicago Reader, and I was offered a chance to write one of their weekly Culture Vulture features, a revolving assortment of Chicago based writers, actors, and artists who share what they're consuming, creative-wise.

For this, I had to select a certain literary magazine to write about, and I kept coming back to PANK Magazine. Jeremy recently selected two of their stories for our daily Instafiction links (Rachel Levy's Becoming Deer and John Jodzio's This Is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get), and the stories in the magazine are some of the best, most consistent pieces of writing. So in addition to having Instafiction's name in such a respected Chicago newspaper, it was extremely satisfying to share the name of what has become one of my favorite literary journals. I'm sharing my piece below, but please visit the original link (or, if you're in Chicago, pick up the paper this weekend) for other pieces. Alongside mine are excellent recommendations for a Thanksgiving weekend of "Deadwood" and the upcoming productions of the DePaul Theater School.



Chicago Reader Culture Vultures: (Originally published November 24, 2011):

"Researching literary magazines is often an exercise in repetition. For every genuinely innovative print journal or webzine, there are, quite literally, dozens of tired attempts at "edgy writing" failing to stand out or offer anything beside the claim of being different. With this in mind, PANK Magazine has forged an impressive spot in the online literary community.

"Bios are boring," states its Twitter description. Although this is a defiant statement, it reflects the magazine's lack of pretense. With the exception of themed editions, the only real mission for PANK is quality short fiction. The stories are genuinely heartbreaking and compelling, the contributors work in a variety of genres, and the end products get the most out of the realistic and the mythical. Rachel Levy's story "Becoming Deer" offers a truth lying in the soul of any great piece of writing: "Slice open a word, and it will bleed." PANK Magazine's writers and editors do this with a measure of increasingly rare consistency."

***

In their wonderful Thanksgiving blog post, the magazine offered us some kind thanks for our article. Because of this weekend and its quick descent into holiday madness, I'd like to ask serious readers to think about small presses and journals this year. If you have readers on your Christmas lists, do some research and give subscriptions to some of the better journals out there. Not only will you expose your friends and family to some under the radar works, you'll also be financially supporting organizations and writers who need it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupations



For the last several weeks, I've been trying to find time to visit Chicago's Occupy movement, with the hopes of seeing it firsthand and possibly interviewing some of the attendees. Originally, I made a decision to not write about it until attending, but I haven't been able to make the trek downtown, and my desire to share my thoughts cannot wait any longer. Writing this from afar, even separated by just a few miles, seems to go against the spirit of the nationwide Occupy movements. However, one part of that spirit is solidarity, so lending my opinions in essay form is something, I suppose. I've read countless news articles from both mainstream and grassroots media outlets; I've bantered via social media, even taking time to read dissenting opinions to make sure I have a balanced foundation; I've heard varying thoughts, from extreme support to extreme disapproval to hints of being in the middle. After taking all of this in, weighing various themes, and simply sitting deep in thought for stretches of time, there is one thing that everyone has to agree upon: the system is flawed. The one idea a lot of people will disagree with me about: the Occupy protesters are engaging in their patriotic duties. Of this I am unequivocally certain.

With unregulated activity, banks and corporations have dug this country into a hole that we're all desperately trying to get out of together. From stock market manipulations to risky spending to flat-out criminal activities, the financial landscape is frightening. Do I claim to have all the answers and understandings? No. But I do know how this personally affected me. I was laid off from a bankrupt company (with no severance) while its executive officers received lucrative bonuses after running the company into the ground. Our customers, dealing with their own financial problems, couldn't spend money as freely as before. Sometimes financial woes are singular, but in this case, there has to be a connection. All the while, the gap between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken has grown at an alarming rate. Nobody is saying that the wealthy cannot earn money, but there is a problem when the top 1% decries fair tax rates while people like myself spend long stretches clinging to unemployment. During my jobless phase, I opted to pay my taxes outright, even though it meant less immediate money, and never once did I question my requirement to pay my share...yet some wealthy people refuse to accept higher taxes, even though they would still be able to live luxuriously. Yes, some may call me a tree-hugging, whiny liberal. But after months and months of desperate job hunting, I finally landed a temporary bookselling position. While I'm grateful to have income that's slightly higher than my unemployment rates, I realize that there are still millions of people, some much more educated than myself, clamoring for dwindling career opportunities. And still, people do not want to hold the perpetrators of the financial crises accountable, and claim that people like myself are lazy and demanding handouts.


My friend Rachel (the founder of Booksellers Without Borders)has been a consistent presence at Chicago's Occupy rallies, documenting her thoughts and experiences via social media, and also via regular newspapers. On October 30th, The Chicago Tribune published her article "Why I Occupy," a strong, pointed account of her reasons for making multiple visits downtown. She engaged in no name calling, no snide remarks, and made many a valid point. A sample of her letter:

"I occupy because I believe in the First Amendment and the civil liberties it grants us.

I occupy because the system is not broken but relies on this kind of active participation to remain strong.

I occupy because it is exciting to see democracy working.

I occupy because after seven years combined of undergraduate and graduate studies, I have student loan debt but not the gainful employment necessary to pay it down.

I occupy because I have been underemployed since finishing school, often working two or three part-time jobs to try to make ends meet.

I occupy because I have spent half of this year unemployed altogether, through no fault of my own. I occupy because the unemployed cannot afford to be invisible statistics any longer.

I occupy because the alternative is sitting in my parents' basement writing cover letters that won't even be rejected, just ignored.

I occupy because if it weren't for the safety net my parents have provided, I would be sitting on a street corner all day asking for a different kind of change."

I am in the same position. If it weren't for my parents, I would have been on the street a long time ago. Of course, since I know Rachel, it's easy for me to have her back. She and I are two educated, intelligent, hard-working people with our hands tied due to the current economic system. For anyone who has not been unemployed recently, it's hard to convey just how daunting it is. Again, it's easy to assume that everyone is lounging around and milking unemployment benefits. Critics of the Occupy movements love to make jokes about the protesters being a bunch of drumming, stoned hippies who have no idea how the system works. Currently, the system benefits the elite and is leaving everyone else trying to stay above water. Are there people at the Occupy movements who are there "just because?" Of course. Are there people who don't know what they're protesting? I'm sure of it. However, the vast majority are Americans who realize that something is wrong, and if some attention can be called to a broken system, so much the better. Perhaps this is naive, but I like to think that some of the people have followed the Occupy movements and have come out more educated. Critics have fallen back on the notion of "they don't know what they're protesting!" But the movement has been flexible. It's making people aware of the problems.

Naturally, Rachel's letter received a lot of feedback, both positive and negative. I'm going to cite some of the responses, all of which are available online at the Tribune's website. I'm not going to use the names of the people who replied, but only out of respect. If I knew them, I would ask for permission, or I would attempt to engage them in dialogue. Another reason is that I don't want it to seem like I'm criticizing AND hiding behind a blog. I'm only using their cited rebuttals to offer my counter-arguments in relation to Rachel's letter and my own opinions. Again, like Rachel, I'm not engaging in name-calling or needless criticism. If someone is against the Occupy movements, that is his or her opinion.

"You occupy because you are anti-military, anti-capitalism, anti-government, feel that society owes you something, are well-educated and unemployed but too good to take a temporary job, still living at home, frustrated, bored and, yep, liberal."

Occupiers are NOT anti-military. Our men and women in uniform also suffer from job insecurity and constraints, and the War on Terror has been draining the national budget for nearly ten years. Soldiers are doing their jobs admirably, and we support them unequivocally. What we do not support is them being in danger due to dubious decisions on the part of the government. And I find it curious that a supposedly conservative person would claim that Rachel is anti-government. If anything, if the government had imposed the proper regulations, the recession might not have been as drastic. And if the government held Wall Street accountable, there would be a sense of justice instead of frustration. And the current GOP candidates are trying to promise an end to proper government regulations. To me, that's much more anti-government. I find it to be very hypocritical that the same political ideology that claims we have too much government is turning around and claiming that another ideology hates government.



"I do not occupy because while working menial jobs during my college career, I chose a major that would be attractive to employers instead of majors such as History, Gender Studies or English-Literature; and I then paid off my loans."

This letter troubled me the most, for multiple reasons. If someone desires to study subjects in college with the sole purpose of making him or herself attractive to employers, that is their choice and that cannot be argued. However, the implication is that subjects such as History, Gender Studies, and (my major) English are dead ends. I've been hearing this long before the Occupy movements began. Even at the very naive age of eighteen, when I decided to major in English, I knew there wouldn't be immediate jobs available, that I would have to spend time honing my craft and educating myself. However, why can't one study what they're passionate about and have that lead to gainful employment? I will never be someone whose sole purpose is to make money. I majored in English because I love writing and literature and wanted to devote my life to these subjects. If the above-mentioned majors were not beneficial in some way, why would colleges offer them? Artists and critical thinkers are invaluable to society. I'm not making any assumptions about the writer, but I'm criticizing the opinion. I'm sure he/she has various passions unrelated to the line of work. But the current landscape makes the pursuit of passions for employment next to impossible. People like me and Rachel are trying our best to be self sufficient. We're not relying on our parents out of laziness. We're trying to forge our paths in an economic world ruled by a lack of jobs and opportunity. The unemployed are decried for "looking for handouts," but it's okay for a bank to receive a government bailout while its CEO makes more money than most people can imagine?

I know this has been a pretty rambling essay, and I know there are much more eloquent pieces out there. But this is one of those moments where I'm writing from the heart as well as my brain. There are so many other concerns and questions I could have raised, but I wanted this to be a small part of support to Occupiers and their message. Keep exercising your first Amendment rights, keep questioning our current state, and let's actively work to make a better world. And my final message is for the critics: we respect your opinions, even if we respectfully disagree. However, do not claim that Occupiers are anti-American. The beauty of this country lies in the realization that such movements and rallies are possible. During all the criticism of the Tea Party movements, not once did I hear anyone question their right to protest. Change is needed, and the Occupy movements are proving to be a necessity. Believe it or not, these movements are really the definition of patriotism. We have so much potential for positive changes, and while our current state is not perfect, we're not completely hopeless. And least not yet.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chicago Flame Archives: Derek Luke Interview

Once again, I find myself slightly behind schedule on my readings, so I figured I'd fill in some gaps with another archival piece from my college newspaper tenure. After digging though my copies, I came across this interview I conducted with actor Derek Luke, in conjunction with his starring role in Denzel Washington's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher (2002). While Luke has definitely made a name for himself, it seems as if he hasn't really captured the genuine excitement that came with this performance. He's worked with some acclaimed filmmakers (namely Spike Lee and Robert Redford), and recently starred in Captain America: The First Avenger, but his debut performance garnered serious award nomination talk, and I remember him being genuinely excited about the film's potential. At the time of this interview, Derek and I had a brief talk about America's race relations, and sadly, I never got the conversation going further, so none of that piece of the interview found its way to the page. I was nineteen when I met with Derek Luke, and while this piece does contain the occasional youthful embellishment, shoddy transition, and weak sentence, I feel that it represented my gradual development as an interviewer.

Derek Luke: Cinema's Latest Potential (originally published in The Chicago Flame, January 14, 2003)




Film debuts are about as common as the commercials and posters that hype these new talents. "A new film by so-and-so", "introducing so-and-so," or "an electrifying debut by so-and-so are the common blurbs in film advertising. For every Edward Norton there are a hundred David Carusos whose screen presence and potential will never materialize. The scenario is similar to big league baseball. Sure, you might get called up, but there's no guarantee that you'll be talented enough to stay. Last month, Derek Luke made his film debut playing the title role of Antwone Fisher. In addition to a strong performance which is creating Oscar buzz in Hollywood, Luke was teamed up with the biggest of big shots in Denzel Washington.

Derek Luke is no shady newcomer, nor is he a potential "so-and-so." Luke is a lit fuse, primed and ready to shake the foundations of American cinema. On top of that, Luke has one of the living legends vouching for his talents.

"Woo-hoo!" is Luke's only response to the emotional magnitude of being able to work with Washington, or as Luke constantly refers to him, Mr. Washington. Not once does the name "Denzel" leave his lips. After starring in a film focused on respect, it is only appropriate that Luke shows that for Washington. "I was allowed to break off of him," says Luke. "But, I did pursue him [from an acting standpoint]. He wasn't a credit to my account."

Antwone Fisher focuses on a sailor haunted by his memories of child abuse. Luke's character is prone to violent outbursts that threaten to lead to his dishonorable discharge. "We're all angry," says Luke. "We all get pushed to the snapping point, whether due to bullies, disrespect, or getting made fun of."

Fisher is sent to see Naval psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington originally just wished to direct the film, but decided to play Davenport for the film's financial backing). The two are only scheduled for three sessions, but Davenport's influence stretches outside the office to help Fisher overcome his problems.



Antwone Fisher is Luke's film debut, but he also has two other films slated for release in 2003. Pieces of April will be screened this month at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. Luke has started off mainly with dramatic roles, but he hopes that the future will bring more variations. "I like everything, I'm open," he says with a sly smile. Luke is a true actor, proven by his body language. His hands constantly move, and his face shifts from one sort of smile to the next. At one point, he even chooses to jump on his hotel windowsill to emphasize a point. "I've made three films with three new directors," he says. "I'd love to try new comedy, new drama. Comedy, suspense...as long as it works."

As far as specific roles are concerned, Luke doesn't have a steadfast preference. "But it is much easier to play a real-life character," he says in reference to Antwone Fisher. The film also has not-so-subtle undertones of racial conflicts. It is obvious that Antwone Fisher goes to certain lengths to show a young black man feeling racially at odds with some of his fellow white sailors. In a film era affected by the lack of black contribution to American cinema, Antwone Fisher is noticeable for black influence--the new star, the director, and the screenwriter are all African-American. Derek Luke is optimistic that the future will be more integrated with little to no focus on skin color. "The world becomes different as it grows," he says. "With time rising and some fine tuning, it won't be about race."

Fame has not gone to his head at all. With the onslaught of accolades and publicity, he simply has to turn towards his family for calmness and reassurance. "It's a new world with my nieces and nephews," he says with glowing pride. " They range in age from five to seventeen. When they touch my face and call out 'Uncle D,' 'Uncle D,' that's all that matters." That statement is almost eerie with its relation to the film. Luke plays a young man striving to attain a family that he never knew. In real life, he has a family that makes him visibly happy.

Being so new on the Hollywood circuit, it is impossible to predict what fortunes that Derek Luke will receive. Oscar speculation for his role in Antwone Fisher is growing steadily. Whether he's nominated or not doesn't matter. Whether he becomes a legend in American cinema doesn't matter, either. Derek Luke has already succeeded. He knows what truly matters in life. Peace of mind will not be a problem for this man. He only needs to look toward his nieces and nephews, his biggest fans. However, don't be surprised if Derek Luke becomes a very hot commodity in the future. He's already halfway there.